In the three years I’ve been writing about the Chicago Independent Spirits Expo, I think I’ve said all there is to say about the challenges of deciding what to taste at an event that boasts hundreds of spirits from several dozen distillers. This year, for a change, I stopped worrying about it. The Illinois distilleries were mostly grouped together in one corner of the room, so I started there, moving on to the other tables after I’d tasted as much as I could of the locally made spirits.
Brandy seemed a little more popular than I remember it being in the past; there were a few I hadn’t tried before, and probably others that I missed. While brandy has never fallen out of favor in Wisconsin, where it’s the spirit of choice for an old-fashioned, in the rest of the country it still has a reputation as something your grandmother would drink. And sourced whiskey (that is, whiskey being sold by a company that didn’t distill it) made many appearances, some more obvious than others. One distillery didn’t seem to want to advertise the fact that its whiskeys were sourced (but wasn’t exactly trying to hide it, either); another company puts the name of the distillery their whiskeys come from right on the front of the bottle. Below are ten of my favorites of the evening.
Chicago Distilling Company Boomer mushroom vodka: Made with four kinds of mushrooms and bottled at 100 proof, this very weird—and weirdly appealing—vodka tastes sort of like dirt and umami, in much the same way that mushrooms can. Owner and distiller Jay DiPrizio said that drinking it makes you want to eat steak, and I can’t argue with him there. Call it the power of suggestion, but I went out for steak after the tasting (something I don’t often do).
Frankfort Spirits Emil Stimple bourbon: Located about an hour south of Chicago in Frankfort, Illinois, this year-old company offers a corn vodka and an eight-year-old bourbon in two strengths. If the math doesn’t seem to add up, that’s because they source the bourbon from another distillery that owner Phillip Casey declined to name (aside from saying that they worked with the former owner of Redemption Rye). He did mention, however, that he and the other owners identified the bourbon they wanted to sell before they even got their license—at which point they were finally able to buy it. They aged it for another year or so before bottling at barrel strength (106 proof) and a somewhat less intense 87 proof. It’s beautifully made bourbon—I liked both expressions, but especially the barrel-strength one, which was very smooth considering its alcohol content.
Blaum Bros Knotter bourbon, finished in Madeira casks: Even before the Internet shitstorm erupted around sourced whiskeys, Blaum Brothers was being as transparent as possible about the fact that the whiskey they’re currently selling isn’t made in-house; in case consumers miss the punny name, the front of the label says, “the finest straight bourbon whiskey we never distilled” (they are, however, making and aging whiskey–their rye will come out in 2016 and their bourbon in 2017). Meanwhile, their current product is a lovely bourbon, spicier than most; the version finished in Madeira wine barrels is a bit smoother with a little fruitiness to it.
Barrow’s Intense Ginger Liqueur: The name of this one doesn’t lie; the liqueur has not only an intense ginger flavor, but also a ton of gingery spice—much more than any of the other ginger liqueurs I’ve tried. The reason for that, says founder Josh Morton, is the alcohol content—44 percent, which is high for a liqueur—combined with the 200 pounds of fresh ginger he uses in each batch (which works out to a quarter pound per bottle). The alcohol preserves spiciness of the ginger, making for a not-too-sweet liqueur that’s the closest thing I’ve found to biting into a piece of fresh ginger root.
Copper Fiddle barrel-aged Tom gin: This two-year-old Lake Zurich distillery has two gins and a bourbon. The bourbon, aged in small barrels for seven to eight months, is very vanilla forward and a bit hot—but it’s still fairly young, plus it’s bottled at 92 proof. But it was the barrel-aged Tom gin, sweeter and less herbal than most gin, that I found particularly interesting.
Journeyman Fine Girl Brandy: One of Journeyman’s newer products, this brandy is made from Vidal Blanc grapes grown at St. Julian Wine Co. and aged in used bourbon barrels; it’s soft, sweet, and very easy to drink.
Rhine Hall plum brandy: Local distillery Rhine Hall makes only brandy: it launched with an apple brandy and a grappa in 2013, and now offers oak-aged versions of both. They’ve gradually been introducing different fruit brandies (also known as eau de vie); last year I tried their excellent mango brandy, while this year they had a rich, aromatic plum brandy.
Peach Street pear brandy: The peach brandy from Colorado’s Peach Street Distillery is quite nice, but it was the pear brandy that blew me away. It tastes more like pear than most pears I’ve eaten do.
Halsted Vodka: To be honest, vodka is never going to be among my favorites at any tasting, no matter how good it is. I actually like this one better than a lot that I’ve tried (which isn’t saying much), but its gold medal from the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits competition is a better indication of its quality than my opinion. What I do like about the locally based company (the vodka itself comes from Colorado) is its mission of supporting Chicago’s LGBT community; 15 percent of its profits go to local causes including the Center on Halsted and the Chicago AIDS Foundation.
Jewish Whisky Company: Last year I was disappointed by the fact that MGP’s table was empty—in the wake of the uproar over the fact that Templeton Rye and many other companies sourced their whiskeys from the Indiana factory distillery, I was interested in trying their products. (Spirits Expo producer Martin Duffy said the table was empty because the company didn’t have any brands of their own.) But at this year’s expo, for the first time ever, I saw the name Midwest Grain Products on a whiskey label: the Jewish Whisky Company buys casks from distilleries, bottling each spirit at cask strength and labeling it with the name of the distillery it comes from. Most of their offerings are Scotch whiskies, but one of the most recent releases is an eight-year-old rye from MGP that’s easily one of the best whiskeys I tried at the expo. The Jewish Whisky Company sells whiskey on its website through a sort of club called Single Cask Nation, and you have to be a member to buy anything—but you don’t have to be Jewish to become a member.